What is a Department of Education?

Before there was a federal Department of Education, the responsibility for standards in the American educational system rested in the hands of several independent programs within the US President’s Cabinet. The call for a unified Department of Education began to gain volume during the 1950’s and 60’s when education budgets began to soar. By the 70’s, America was ready for a single department to oversee the nation’s educational system.

History of the Department of Education

Although there were myriad legislative attempts to establish a Department of Education since the early 1900’s, the movement gained real momentum with the election of Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who was the former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.  Ribicoff was aided in his efforts by the National Education Association (NEA). This organization began a political action committee that strongly influenced the nomination of Jimmy Carter for President.

Education was one of Carter’s top priorities when he took office in 1976. Initially, pundits were concerned that a Department of Education ran contrary to Carter’s vision of a streamlined government. After carefully studying the issue, Carter decided that education was important enough to merit its own overseeing agency. Ribicoff and several other senators were quick to draft the Department of Education Organization Act. After great debate and conflict, the act was finally voted to the floor where it passed. Carter signed the legislation on October 17th, 1979.

The First Secretary of Education


The initial tone set by the first Secretary of Education, Shirley Hufstedler has served as a model for the Department ever since. Her priorities included focusing on students rather than education interest groups, promoting local administration of education policy, identifying and promoting successful educational models, establishing educational equity and reestablishing the importance of education in the minds of Americans.

Early Threats to the Department

When Ronald Reagan took office, the Department of Education was newly born. President Reagan sought to dismantle the new Department, seeing it as an over-imposition of federal mandate on the states. Terrell Bell, his Secretary of Education, managed to save the Department by establishing its importance in administering policies, helping to coordinate Federal education assistance programs and providing more opportunities for Americans to secure a college education.

The Department of Education Now

Today, the Department runs under the mission of “Providing educational excellent for all Americans”. As part of this mission, the Department also administers policy in early childhood education, secondary schooling and universities. Under the simple name, ED, the Department works to encourage student achievement and prepare the country to compete in a global economy. It publishes research and educational materials to help teachers improve curriculum and student achievement. In addition, the department makes it easier for college students to secure much needed financial aid to pay for a college education and open otherwise closed career opportunities.

Federal Student Loans

Although early childhood education and secondary programs are often sources of contention among Democrats and Republicans, the Department of Education has proven itself useful to both parties through coordinating the funding of over $67 billion in loans, grants and other student aid each year. These loans are administered through the Office of Student Financial Assistance (FSA). This Office manages Stafford loans, undergraduate parent loans, supplemental loans, Pell grants, and other financial aid initiatives. By running these programs under one roof, the students enjoy the benefits of easier access to financial aid.

Stafford Loans

Stafford loans are likely the most well known type of student loan administered by the FSA. The Department of Education funds Direct Stafford Loans, which are repaid directly to the Department. Federal Stafford Loans are administered through the Federal Family Education Loan Program. Some of these funds are from private lenders, but the Department supports the loans. These are repaid to the private lender.

Both types of Stafford loans can be subsidized or unsubsidized. A subsidized loan is only granted when there is proof of the need for financial assistance. On these types of loans, the government pays the interest while the student remains enrolled during certain periods and at least half-time. An unsubsidized loan can be secured whether financial need is shown or not. These loans require the student to pay the interest. There is also a Direct PLUS program that provides unsubsidized loans to the parents of dependent college students. In this case, the parents are responsible for paying the interest.

Pell Grants

Pell Grants are preferable to students because they do not require repayment. Eligibility for these grants is based on financial need, the tuition costs involved and the student’s plan to attend for a full year or not. Congress determines the maximum amounts available each year. Pell Grants are paid to the student by the school, typically per semester.

Campus-Based Aid

The FSA also administers campus based programs. Examples of these programs are the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, Federal Work-Study and Perkins Loan programs. The financial aid office of the participating school distributes these funds at the school’s judgment. Amounts payable are dependent upon financial need, other aid received by the student and the total funds available to the school from the federal government.

Eligibility Requirements

The primary basis for eligibility for federal student aid programs is financial need. Other factors include having a high school diploma or GED. If the student does not have either of these, he or she can take a test approved by the Department. Students must be working to secure a degree or certificate and be enrolled in a program that is eligible for federal assistance. They must also have a valid Social Security Number and be registered with Selective Service where required. To maintain federal assistance, students must show proper academic performance in school.

These federal student assistance programs, and many others administered by the Department of education, have opened career paths to many Americans who would otherwise be unable to afford an education. These loans have become such an integral part of American collegian education, it is hard to conceive how these programs were administered under the split and fractured educational system America utilized prior to 1980.